The Truth About Scented Candles and Home Fragrances

Lighting that beautiful scented candle may be putting you and your family in danger. Green Living expert, Aida Garcia-Toledo, discusses why

Few things can transform our home like the hypnotic flickering of candle light or a specific scent that we associate with relaxation, tranquility, freshness or the heady aroma of the Holidays. It’s common practice to use scented candles, plug ins and fragrance sprays on a daily basis in order to relax, to conjure up a romantic atmosphere, or to simply mask an undesirable smell.

The question is – are these artificial fragrances safe for us or are they adding to our daily toxic chemical burden?

The good news is that if you know what to seek out, and what to avoid, there are safe and non-toxic options available.

The bad news?  Buy the wrong product and you could be exposing you and your family to chemicals that, amongst other things, are suspected of interfering with our hormones, may produce asthma in otherwise healthy individuals and even transform the structure of our DNA.

What to avoid

Scented candles, synthetic oils, plug ins and air fresheners release microscopic particles into the air that could potentially affect our health if regularly inhaled. Remember, pregnant women and young children are more vulnerable to constant chemical exposure.

The most worrisome chemicals released by these products are:

  • Fragrance chemicals: The main chemicals of concern in all of these items are fragrance chemicals.  Due to proprietary rights, companies do not have to disclose the specific chemicals that they use in their fragrances.  However, considering that up to 80% of the product can be made up of fragrance chemicals and that any given fragrance can be made up of more than 100 chemicals, it’s important to know what you and your family are potentially inhaling.
  • Synthetic musks: These have the ability to interfere with our hormones and build up inside of our bodies, as well as in breast milk.
  • Phthalates: These chemicals are responsible for binding the ‘smell’ to the product itself (the candle, the oil etc).  The problem?  They are carcinogenic and can disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm count, cause reproductive malformation, and have been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Prenatal fetal exposure to phthalates has been linked to increased risk of autism, ADHD, and neurological disorders.
  • Formaldehyde: Plug-in air fresheners have been found to produce considerable levels of formaldehyde: a known ‘human carcinogen’ linked with cancers of the nose and throat. To a lesser degree it can also cause sore throats, coughs, scratchy eyes and nosebleeds.
  • Paraffins: Most scented candles are made out of paraffin. Paraffin is a petroleum byproduct that will release acetone, benzene and toluene, all of which are known carcinogens, into the air you breath when burned (these are the same chemicals given off by diesel fuel fumes).  It also aggravates respiratory problems especially for those who have asthma and allergies.

If inhaled regularly, other chemicals commonly found in air fresheners (especially sprays) can increase the risk of developing asthma by 50%. Furthermore, women who used air fresheners in their homes or offices during pregnancy were significantly more likely to have babies who suffered from wheezing, lung infections and earaches.

The bottom line is, if you really enjoy burning candles or if you love scenting your home every single day, consider switching to these non-toxic air freshener alternatives :

  1. Open your windows: Let fresh air circulate and cleanse your home. It’s horrifying to think that indoor air can contain over 500 chemicals in it, so let that air flow in.
  2. Decorate with indoor plants. Certain plants are able to absorb airborne toxins and pump out clean fresh oxygen. See our article on Why houseplants are good for your family’s health to see which plants work the best.
  3. Scent using ingredients from your fridge/ garden: Simmer water with your favorite smelling citrus and/or herbs and allow the smell to circulate your home. I like lime and rosemary sprigs or orange slices with cloves.
  4. Buy safer candles. Choose candles made with beeswax and cotton wicks.  Make sure they are  100% beeswax since it is common for manufacturers to mix paraffin and beeswax. Coconut oil candles and non GMO soy candles are another safe alternative.
  5. Use natural smell absorbers: Baking soda acts like a sponge which absorbs bad smells naturally. Place baking soda in a bowl (or a couple of bowls if the smell is strong) inside the offending room.
  6. Scent using pure essential oils: Make your own air fresheners by mixing pure organic essential oils with water in a spray bottle or use them in a diffuser in lieu of a plug in to scent a room.